by SEAN KIMMONS
A Hays County-based Hindu ashram has changed its name while their beloved guru remains a wanted fugitive, officials say.
Following the conviction and disappearance of its founder and leading guru, the newly elected president of the Barsana Dham ashram announced in an early April letter to devotees that the holy site would now be called Radha Madhav Dham.
“I would like to take this time to extend my heartfelt concern to all the loving devotees of Shree Swamiji and Shree Maharajji,” president Raj Goel wrote in the letter. “We have endured difficult times over the past days, both during and after the trial.”
Prakashanand Saraswati, 82, also known as Shree Swamiji, did not show up to court on March 7, a few days after a Hays County jury found him guilty of 20 charges of sexual indecency with a child. He was later sentenced to 14 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for each count.
The charges stem from two former devotees who testified that their breasts were fondled by Swamiji during their stay at the ashram when they were young girls in the mid-1990s. U.S. Marshals are confident that the elderly guru is still holed up in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, as his handlers attempt to solicit a plane to fly him to a safe haven in India or Nepal.
The letter also states that the local ashram is now under the control of Shree Maharajji, referring to Jagadguru Shree Kripaluji Maharaj of the Jagadguru Kripalu Parisha, or JKP, an international network of which Barsana Dham belonged.
“As we are now under his direct guidance, Shree Maharajji has graciously initiated some important changes here at Barsana Dham in order to secure our future and the wellbeing of all of Shree Swamiji’s satsangis (followers),” Goel wrote.
Maharajji, 88, hasn’t been immune to sexual abuse claims either. In 2007, he was charged with the rape of a 22-year-old Guyanese woman while he visited Trinidad. The charge was later dropped due to lack of evidence, according to news reports.
Besides the new president, Maharajji has shaken up the entire ashram’s board of trustees, according to the letter. Prabhakari Devi, the sister of one of the accusers who testified on behalf of the defense saying that her sister set out to destroy the ashram, has been replaced in the vice president role.
Treasurer Peter Spiegel has also been removed from the board. Spiegel, who put up bonds worth $11 million for Swamiji, is currently in a legal battle with the Hays County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether he will forfeit the bail.
District Attorney Sherri Tibbe has said that any forfeited bond money will go into the county’s general fund.
Spiegel, who has amassed a fortune in part by selling ionic air purifiers, health supplements and other products via television and telemarketing, testified in the punishment phase of the trial that he didn’t know that he’d be financially responsible for the hefty bonds.
Goel could not be reached for comment. However, ashram spokesperson Vrinda Deutsch confirmed the changes on Tuesday and invited anyone to come out and visit the ashram as it turns the page.
“A lot has happened,” she admitted. “We’re looking to re-establish our core purpose and would love to have the support of our community as we go forward.”
SEAN KIMMONS reports for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.